Thanks to the Mill Valley Film Festival, I was able to see The Girl King (2015), a film that takes on the biography of inquisitive, role-defying Queen Christina of Sweden. The story has been told a few times before, most notably with Greta Garbo starring in Queen Christina (1933). This new version sticks much closer to the historical facts, while trying to find an emotional understanding in the characters that brings the story more into the modern era. It’s a valiant effort, not always successful, but not cliched, trite, or predicable as often happens with inward-looking interpretations of historical tales. As the Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki said, “The Girl King is not intended as a traditional epic costume film but as an intense, actor-centered, psychological drama about one of the most interesting and mysterious personalities of all time.”
While the movie begins with the death of Christina’s father, King Gustav II, most of the action takes place in the 1650s, from Christina’s coronation through her abdication in 1654. The film gives a rough outline of the history of Christina’s life, covering all the major points with decent accuracy. Her mother was crazy, her father’s councilor practically bullied Christina (spelled with a “K” in this movie and played by Malin Buska) as a ruler, while she was very studious and loved the hell out of reading books, she even studied with René Decartes for a time, although they weren’t BFFs (and yes, he died in Sweden, but of natural causes, and I doubt he was a surgeon either).
The romantic relationship between Christina and her lady in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon) is a central part of the film, but it’s a slow build to a mild spark, not exactly the hot girl-on-girl action the previews might hint at. Honestly, it’s a lot more believable in the historical context the way this movie portrays their relationship. There’s even a hint that the queen took advantage of power dynamics to get her way with “la belle comtesse.” But her lesbian or bisexual tendencies are the least of her worries, since she’s not fully committed to Lutheranism and she’s depleting the country’s coffers by buying books and art.
OK, OK, go read the Wikipedia page on Queen Christina, because really, the movie hits all the highlights mentioned there — just adding a bunch of Decartes text in the form of letters that are meant to give Deep Meaningful Insight into the queen. It’s clunky in places and sweet in others. YMMV. Let’s talk about the costumes, shall we?
The Costumes in The Girl King
The movie was filmed mostly in Finland and a little bit in Germany, and the director and crew are mostly Finnish. Costume designer Marjatta Nissinen has primarily worked in Finnish film and TV, and while that includes a few period pieces, I get the impression that this was her first big historical production. I also get the impression that the budget wasn’t super high for The Girl King — some of the fabric choices struck me as less than historically accurate, there’s an overall lack of layers to the outfits, garments have minimal or odd trimming, hats are floppy and missing wired edges, and there seemed to be a rationing of hairpins on set. Despite these nitpicks, the overall look fits the 1650s period and is appropriate to the mood of the film and the characters.
What I found especially nice was the obvious references to period portraits of Queen Christina and Countess Ebba Sparre in the movie costumes. The designer didn’t go off into fantasyland, she used actual source material. The execution may suffer due to budget constraints, but you can clearly see the historical influences, and I really appreciate that.
Christina wears women’s gowns for formal occasions and men’s pants and vests at other times. There are a few scenes where the pants look terribly modern — from skinny leggings (maybe leather?) to wide palazzo pants, instead of historical breeches. But her gowns have a good historical silhouette, though I’m not convinced about the neckline placement on her or any of the women’s gowns. The bodices do appear to be boned, and in various undressing scenes, no corset or stays are worn underneath (also, no smock / shift / chemise, ouch). The only corset / stays that are shown in the film are worn by Christina over a man’s shirt with man’s pants when she’s fencing. It’s not the most historically accurate look (I think it should be smock, corset, then shirt), but I can totally see why it’s worn this way for the film — it gives a very gender-bending impression of a “girl king.”
Other costumes of note include those worn by Christina’s mother (Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg played by Martina Gedeck). She’s certifiably insane, both historically and in the movie, so she gets really wacky clothes to make her mental state clear. The ginormous ruffs she wears when mourning King Gustav and to Christina’s coronation were out of fashion, so it makes her look suitably loony. And the bright red ensemble she wears to harangue Christina about getting married is gorgeously ridiculous.
Overall, The Girl King is a solid biopic of an unusual historical figure, featuring mostly well-realized historical costumes. It’s worth watching primarily because the topic, time period, and setting are rarely seen on film, and this production was done with care by a team highly invested in the story (even if the budget investment was small). Neither an American or UK wide-release date have been confirmed yet, and the movie is currently on the film festival circuit. News sources suggest that The Girl King might be distributed to theaters in December 2015 or spring 2016, so keep an eye out!